The school welcomes people across the UK to join its students and learn the foundations of empathetic debate, discussion, and negotiation.

We’ve all seen the political debates that have stormed our television screens during Brexit and the COVID-19 lockdown, many of which featured contentious exchanges. And we can probably conclude that we don’t want our children to follow in the footsteps of many current politicians. But what if we could teach younger generations how to replace anger-fuelled confrontations with debates powered by healthy dialogue? This approach could reform the way our future leaders face complicated challenges and achieve the best solutions for our societies.

That’s why Gordonstoun School (Moray, Scotland) runs its Dialogue Society, which sets the example young people need to engage and influence others. While some schools offer debating societies – which often simply show students how to voice their own opinions – Gordonstoun’s Dialogue Society redefines what it means to debate by encouraging students to listen to all arguments and integrate multiple views to reach the best solutions.

Given the Dialogue Society’s success over the past five years, the full-service boarding school has also hosted the UK’s first-ever dialogue symposiums. Gordonstoun invited young people, teachers, and even a parish council to join its students at these events, where attendees learnt how to approach political debates in an empathetic, understanding manner.

Why Gordonstoun School’s Dialogue Society Is Important

Gordonstoun’s Dialogue Society emphasises the importance of embracing empathy to understand everyone’s point of view when resolving conflict. The school promotes this approach as many current politicians fail to listen to their opponents and instead turn up the volume on their own arguments to ‘win’ debates.

‘We have been appalled by the aggressive and confrontational tone increasingly adopted by world leaders,’ said Lisa Kerr, Gordonstoun’s principal. ‘As a school founded by a Jew who fled Germany under persecution of the Nazis, and which has always welcomed students from diverse backgrounds, we strongly believe it is possible for people with different perspectives to reach a common understanding.’

Given the poor examples some politicians set when it comes to respectful, skilled debating, Gordonstoun is helping the next generation develop healthy debating skills. Regardless of whether students embark on political careers, strong debating skills can help in any role that involves knowledge share, negotiation, and decision-making. Therefore, the skills acquired in the Dialogue Society can help young people resolve the challenges they will face in their future careers, no matter the sector.

Meanwhile, the young people who do go on to pursue politics at a higher level will be well positioned to manage successful debates. Societies need leaders who can pursue national interests – not self-absorbed ideas of ‘winning’ – without causing unnecessary conflict and tension. Gordonstoun is dedicated to helping the next generation achieve this. The school is doing its bit to cultivate a generation of people who protect the vulnerable and open their minds to new political opportunities.

How Gordonstoun Educates Students Across the UK

Gordonstoun is aware that simply educating its own students isn’t enough when it comes to nurturing entire generations so they can partake in healthy debates. That’s why the acclaimed school has launched free dialogue symposiums, which welcome students from across the UK, including some of the most deprived areas, alongside the school’s own students.

Gordonstoun has already hosted two symposiums for students and teachers from eight private and state schools. The first symposium took place in 2019 and was so successful that the school hosted another this year. Gordonstoun hopes that students and teachers in attendance will share their learnings with their respective schools. In future, these schools may even start their own Dialogue Societies – especially as teachers who attend Gordonstoun’s symposiums receive training to become facilitators.

The 2019 and 2021 Symposiums

Gordonstoun invited students throughout Britain to attend the 2019 symposium, where James Smith, one of Gordonstoun’s teachers, discussed effective conflict-resolution strategies. Mr Smith has a master’s degree in Peace and Conflict and has worked with trained teams to overcome political conflicts, even working on the UN peacekeeping mission to Haiti. During the three-day ‘Learning to Listen’ event, Mr Smith urged students not to follow the examples set by politicians during Brexit. Instead, he encouraged them to empathise with opponents to understand their priorities and negotiate helpful solutions.

‘The art of dialogue is very different to the art of debate,’ said Mr Smith. ‘It is not about winning an argument but about understanding your opponent’s point of view so you can reach the best outcome for all. This requires listening and empathy, essential skills which will help these students throughout their lives, whether or not they choose to become the politicians of the future.’

‘We have been teaching dialogue to our own students for several years now through the Gordonstoun Dialogue Society, but we are very keen to share this practice more widely and are delighted that schools from across the country have joined us for three days of Learning to Listen,’ Ms Kerr added.

Gordonstoun held its second dialogue symposium in March 2021, welcoming an array of senior students and teachers to the virtual event. Mr Smith also led this symposium, highlighting the importance of listening to all perspectives when resolving conflict – especially in online meetings. The focus on virtual debates was key as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other remote software are likely here to stay for the long term, meaning we need to adapt our communication strategies for online platforms.

An Extended Invitation for Handforth Parish Council

Furthermore, Gordonstoun invited Handforth Parish Council members to the 2021 online symposium. The school extended its free training to the council following a parish meeting in which council members insulted each other and struggled to manage conflict. Millions of viewers watched online clips of the meeting, during which the chief officer had to mute and remove members.

‘Handforth Parish Council’s meeting revealed an adversarial and unproductive approach to proceedings which is sadly all too common in modern public debate,’ said Ms Kerr. ‘For society to advance, the next generation needs to know how to listen and reach the best outcome for all. This is why we have a Dialogue Society at Gordonstoun and why we have held the second dialogue symposium, which was open to schools around the UK. Having welcomed students to Gordonstoun for our inaugural symposium in 2019, this year’s focused on online dialogue, reflecting how much of our work is now done digitally.’

Symposium Feedback

Students found the symposiums hugely beneficial and have even included details of the events in their university applications to secure places at universities like Cambridge.

‘It was an amazing opportunity with so much potential to do good in the world,’ said one student, Nicole, who attends Samworth Church Academy in Mansfield. ‘It not only allowed me to expand my skillset but also my mind. Meeting people with such diverse backgrounds and pasts was remarkably interesting as diversity is not something we really have here in Mansfield. As a result, I found it quite useful to be able to talk to people who have experienced different lifestyles and cultures and it has given me a lot to think about.’

‘I liked the fact that the young people had to consciously think about the art of conversation, rather than react to a debate,’ added history and modern studies teacher James Beattie from Govern High School in Glasgow. ‘As an observer, I was able to see how much confidence both [students from the school] gained in developing their verbal skills. Both girls are naturally quiet pupils who would usually take a step back in discussion. What the symposium did was push them out of their comfort zone.’

Spreading the Word

Gordonstoun’s symposiums have attracted impressive media attention as the school works to reset the nation’s approach to political debates. ITV, BBC, and The Times – amongst other influential media names – have spread the word about Gordonstoun’s Dialogue Society and symposiums.

Gordonstoun believes dialogue skills are as important as traditional curriculum subjects like French and physics. Coaching today’s students to best approach political challenges can improve the UK’s future political stance and prepare societies to reach the most effective solutions. It’s for this reason that Gordonstoun moves beyond the academic in its educational approach to political studies.

Learn more about Gordonstoun School.

About Gordonstoun School

Gordonstoun is an independent, co-educational boarding school that sits in the far North East of the UK in scenic Moray. Widely considered Scotland’s sunshine coast, Moray may feel tucked away from city life. But Gordonstoun is within easy access of both Inverness airport and Aberdeen airport, where students fly in from around the world to enjoy the highest standard of education. These students, ranging in age from 4 to 18, come together to embrace diverse cultures and backgrounds in one of the UK’s most prestigious schools.

Dr Kurt Hahn, a Jewish exile who fled Nazi Germany, founded the school in 1934, hoping to educate children so they could best contribute to society. Since then, Gordonstoun has educated three generations of British Royalty, welcoming both the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales to the school. Gordonstoun has also contributed towards the founding of the Outward Bound Movement and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, both of which have put the school on the map and formed Gordonstoun into one of the most prevalent in the UK.

Today, Gordonstoun welcomes 542 children from over 40 countries. These young people enjoy an array of traditional and modern subjects in seven-day programmes, each designed to inspire and motivate students. Aside from traditional subjects, students also enjoy numerous expeditions to the Scottish Highlands, Moray Firth beaches, and beyond in the school’s 80 ft sailing boat.